Reflections on Benghazi: Administration Was Right From the Beginning on What Mattered Most

May 2013 Update - As this issue has returned the national stage, I stand by this analysis from the early days of this contentious debate. 

Like many not in government and without a security clearance I have wondered about what happened in Libya on Sept 11th, and about the Administration's response.  In the last few days, helped by the Presidential debate, I feel like I have a much better understanding of what happened and why the Administration played it as they did.  I tried to explain all this in a rather wild Fox News segment today, but wasn't able to get it all out.  So I offer up my thoughts here.  

I have no doubt that the Administration was a bit confused about what happened in Benghazi that night.  Reasonable, after all, given that those in charge were murdered.  But what we know now is that while there was confusion about whether, like dozens of other US government facilities in the region that week, the Benghazi consulate saw protests taking place because of the anti-Islamic video. there was not an awful lot of confusion about the nature of the attack on the consulate, however.  The attack on the Benghazi consulate involved military gauge equipment and tactics.  It was not out of control rioting like Cairo.  It was something totally different, and no one from the Administration ever represented what happened in Benghazi as anything other than such an attack.  Even I, on September 12 on Megyn Kelly's Fox News program, said it appeared to have been a military level attack. This level of information was already widely available in the media the very next day and reinforces the argument that no one from the Administration was attempting to down play the nature of the attack. 

Additionally, as the New York Times reports today, there is no evidence at this point that the group suspected of being behind the attack, Ansar Al-Sharia, was a "terrorist" organization with Al Qaeda ties. They are a hard line domestic Libyan Islamist group without a history of working with foreign terrorist organizations.  Based on the limited and competing intelligence available to the President on Sept 12th, it may not have been clear that a known terrorist organization was actually behind the attack.  And yet, as we all know now, the President used the word "acts of terror" on Sept 12th, and made a much more direct reference on to terror acts on Sept 13th. 

When Susan Rice went on TV on the 16th she openly talked about the military nature of the attack on the consulate but did not label the attacks "acts of terror," nor did she distance herself from the idea that these attacks came during a larger protest.  But what is important here is that at no point did Susan Rice compare what happened in Benghazi to what happened in Cairo.  She was clear that the attack involved military level equipment and tactics.  And it is critical to note that at that time, violence was erupting throughout the Arab and Muslim world due to the anti-Islamic video. It is easy to see how one could have assumed that the Benghazi attack came during such a protest. 

What is important here is that within two weeks of the Sept 11th attack in Benghazi, the Administration had enough information to make a public judgment that it was indeed a "terrorist" attack, and openly acknowledged that it had nothing to do with protesters as was originally thought.   The early and consistent use of the words "terror" and "terrorists" showed that the President was aware of the nature of what went on, and no one from the Administration ever implied our Ambassador will killed by angry mob.  Based on reporting today we now know the Administration and our Libyan allies are making real progress in identifying the attackers. So all of this is proceeding apace. 

As former Bush/Clinton Counter-Terrorism Chief Dick Clarke writes today, the obsession by some about the acknowledged confusion in the early days of a tragic moment is misplaced.  A newly released interview with one of the alleged attackers himself suggests that anger over the video did indeed play a role, and that things were extremely chaotic outside the consulate.  The repeated assertion that people from the Administration lied is untrue; there was confusion about what happened in Benghazi but not about the nature of the attack; within a short period of time the Administration came to a coherent and fact-based understanding; and that the politicization of this by Mitt Romney and others is simply reprehensible and should end, now.  

I wish we could have used all this energy to have had a real debate about what has happened in the region these past few years.  The draw down of our military presence; the historic transitions to democracy we've seen from the Arab Spring; the unprecedented coalition which has been established to thrwart Iran and the crippling impact sanctions have had; and the decimation of Al Qaeda and the killing of Bin Laden.  Any honest assessment of what has happened in these last few years should offer us great hope that we could be seeing an historic transformation of a troubled region begin to take root.  What we should be talking about is how to best support this transition, and help usher in a new and better era for the region.  That is what I hope we hear Monday in the foreign policy debate, and it something that our MENA Initiative has spent many many months discussing.

Update - Be sure to read this terrific piece by Brad Bosserman on how President Obama could discuss his record and approach to MENA in the coming debate.

Update - Eric Wemple features this debate today in his Washington Post column. 

Update - Fox's Megyn Kelly praises my analysis on the air, recommends it to her viewers.